Youth Lagoon’s debut album The Year of Hibernation was a gorgeous piece of work highlighted by the epic “Montana,” a quiet dirge-like song that propelled the album to numerous critical accolades and top ten lists. It was a daring piece of work, with singer, songwriter, and one-man band Trevor Powers opening up about mental illness amidst a stream of quiet minimalism. Its follow-up, Wondrous Bughouse, is a nice try at an expansion of his sound. But, it falls into a trap of extending so far beyond Powers’ grasp, that the album can only be called, at best, a failed experiment.
Using the term Bughouse in the title should be the first clue that the album is headed deeper in its exploration of mental instability. First used in the 19th century to describe a mentally unstable person, the term is represented here by a psychedelic collage for an album cover that is a far cry from the mountainous textures found on Hibernation. Credit to Powers for announcing his intentions from the cover: this is a whacked out journey through psychosis and psychedelia that tries to ape Sgt. Pepper and Syd Barrett, but ends up sounding like a leftover from the Rolling Stones’ Satanic Majesty’s Request.
After a brief introduction titled “Through Mind and Back,” the song “Mute” hits your speakers in all its psychedelic glory. It starts out fantastic, announcing a new direction for Youth Lagoon with shifting textures and a wild production style. But, then, there’s a ringing that brings to mind an out-of-tune ice cream truck. The annoying sound becomes front and center on the tune, bringing any momentum to a screeching halt. As an opener, “Mute” is emblematic of the album’s problem – A great idea turned sour by too much cute bullshit.
“Attic Doctor” rights the ship a little bit, but even then, the song takes on a circus-like quality that is devoid of any semblance of feeling. Powers is relying more on soundscapes here than he did on Hibernation, with songs like “The Bath” leaning heavily on textures and sound collages. The problem with these songs lies in the production. For some reason, everything is mixed to the front. Yes, it’s lo-fi at its most in-your-face, but the result is an experience akin to listening to your speakers slowly blow themselves out.
The backside of the record fairs a little bit better. “Dropla” is a nice bit of psychedelic madness, while “Sleep Paralysis” is a piano driven tune that attempts to cut through the murk. Ultimately, Wondrous Bughouse is an album that is trying so hard to prove something, but it can’t quite get there. It’s a shame, because when the album works, it’s gorgeous. But, those moments are buried so deep within individual songs that it becomes a chore just to find something to latch onto.
Youth Lagoon has a lot to say and he has the power, imagination, and wit to say it in a manner that is better than this. But, Wondrous Bughouse is all sound and zero bite. I admire Powers’ skill level and convictions, as well as his attempt to explore mental instability. But, he’s bitten off more than he could chew here. It’s a shame to see one of the year’s most anticipated records become its first big disappointment.